On the other hand, Beowulf shows resentment at once. He begins with an accusation that Unferth has drunk too much. He continues in a louder and more combative tone and style than Unferth had yet used, by giving his own account. Read aloud, it is almost impossible not to feel and not to represent the rising passion of Beowulf, as he recalls the events. And then being now fully heated with wrath, he turns on Unferth personally. Each sentence rises to a new point of scorn and anger, until at last forgetful of all courtesy he speaks in contempt of Danish courage, and vows to oppose Grendel with Geatish valour.
The ‘flyting’ is a memorable passage, very good even by modern standards, though we may tend to criticize it: for instance, in the somewhat repetitive references to the swimming in the sea. Yet it must be remember that though ‘dramatic’ this is not drama, but narrative poetry (or mouth-filling rhetoric). In the economy of the tale it has, of course, a narrative function: Unferth touches off the spark of Beowulf’s passionate (but not savage!) nature, and brings him to the point of a public vow to challenge Grendel at once. From that he cannot recede. More, we now really meet and know Beowulf and his character. Steadfast, loyal, chivalrous (according to the sentiment of the author’s time), but with a smouldering fire. He is on the good side: his enemies are wild beasts, monstrous and evil creatures, or his king’s and people’s foes. But when roused he is capable of violent and superhuman action. If he does not wholly follow the sober counsels of wisdom, he satisfies their most important prescription. He speaks gilp (proud vows) in the heat of his heart but he performs his vow — even to his last day, when it cost him his life."
This is one of my favorite passages from the Commentary so far — very unexpected, since I’ve usually skimmed over this part of the story almost every other time I’ve read the poem. While the translation is not terribly fun to read (more accurate and scholarly than an aesthetically pleasing work of art), the Commentary alone is worth the price of the book. I’ve read in a couple places before of how Tolkien’s students always admired him for his lectures, particularly the ones on Beowulf, and it is from the text of these very lectures that the Commentary is taken. Reading his views on the nature of the poem, its historical and cultural roots, his analysis on the meaning of difficult passages and words, and his discussion of the blending of history, legend, and fairy tale elements, I feel like I’m sitting in a room in Oxford, listening to the Professor teach. It’s a true pleasure.